I’m a planner; if you know me, this shouldn’t be a surprise. NYC ’12 was going to be marathon #18 (and a stepping stone on my pursuit to hitting (sub) 3:30… I was aiming for 3:35-40ish there), Houston would be #19, and Eugene (April 2013) would be #20 because I think it’d be awesome to run my 20th marathon in Tracktown, USA. Well, life intervenes sometimes (hello, Hurricane Sandy), so Houston became #18… but my intentions to still use this race as my first attempt at getting into club 3:30 were still as fierce as ever.
My bro lives in Houston, so the fact that I’d/the family would be able to go and stay with him made this a no-brainer. Actually, I had registered for Houston ’12 but deferred bc that would have been my first marathon post-pregnancy, and though I was trained for it, I wasn’t confident about how well I’d do (read: I didn’t want a 4-hour race) so I opted for 2013 instead (even though I’d miss seeing the Olympic Trials, since they were there in 2012). ANYWAY… I had always heard Houston was a fabulous race, one that was perfect for hitting a PR because of the flat and fast course, so once my bro relocated there, it was on my bucket list. After I hit a 3:34 in Champaign in April, my running partners got this crazy idea into my head that I was “totally” capable of going 3:30, if not also 3:15/3:20s (based on my 5k and half times), so Houston seemed like the best place to try out this crazy experiment.
C, A, and I left a pretty comfortable (mid-40s) Chicago on Thursday for a wet Houston.
It was awesome seeing and spending time with my bro and his wife for the first time in nearly a year and a half, and he even came with and experienced his first marathon expo. I managed to win him a $25 Chevron gift card, and he got lots of free product samples, so dare I say he actually enjoyed himself… 🙂 Houston’s expo was large and well-organized, and it was in the same convention center (GRB) that would later hold the pre- and post-race staging areas.
My parents, sister, and two young nephews all flew in by Saturday morning, again, to a very wet (and pretty humid… and warm, 75 or so) Houston, even though the weather forecasts for race day just looked shitty as hell. I was expecting to be rained on for at least part of the race, which is fine–I’ve done races, marathons included, in the rain–but I haven’t done anything sans training runs in torrential downpours. To make this feeling of general uneasiness worse, on my “shake the nerves out” shake-out run at mid-day on Saturday in the 75 degree heat and 1000% humidity, in the throes of my final carbo loading, I had GI issues about a mile into my 3.1 mi run (most likely because of the gatorade I had been drinking earlier in the day), which of course, didn’t exactly give me a great sense of comfort heading into the race. In fact, I was pretty sure I had some stomach bug thing for most of Saturday bc my GI seemed to be giving me the finger all morning/afternoon.
At any rate, the family happily partook in the obligatory pre-race pasta feed with me, thanks to my sister-in-law’s wonderful cooking, and I was in bed (and asleep) by 9:30. I slept well, in terms of how I’d usually sleep before a race, and started my day at 3:50, ate around 4:15, and was out their door to drive into Houston by 4:30… in the rain, wind, and general shitty weather that no one enjoys running in. The GRB held all the runners indoors in their pre-race staging area, which was awesome because there were plenty of porta-potties, the gear check was inside and clearly organized, and they even had mass (and breakfast, I think) going on. It was a well-oiled machine, and it was great knowing that I didn’t have to stand around outside in the 40 degree rain and wind mess for an hour. In fact, I think I started strolling out with only about 25 minutes to spare.
I quickly aligned myself with the 3:30 group in corral A and began doing what everyone does before a marathon–nervously bullshitting with perfect strangers 🙂 One guy next to me, Dan, an anaesthesiologist from Pittsburgh, and I started chatting and discovered we had similar goals for the day, so we just chatted each other up and decided we’d hang as long as possible. Once Ryan Hall announced the start of the race, a good two minutes later we were off in the darkness (pre-sunrise, since the race began at 7), wind, and rain–rain that was hard enough to defeat me wearing sunglasses because the rain obscured my vision too much.
In retrospect, I feel like the only downside about this race is that the marathon takes you over and through several highway overpasses. Perhaps I’m not remembering this correctly, but that sure feels right… and that was one of the very first things we did (and on an uphill). The first 4 or 5 miles were through an older, more run-down part of the city, but the residents were awesome and totally rockin’ out with the runners. The halfers joined us at mile 2, so things were a little crowded initially, but it wasn’t anything too bad.
Unfortunately (or not… this is already hellaciously long), I can’t give an adequate mile-by-mile recap bc I don’t know the city well enough, but throughout the whole experience, Houstonians (and West Universityians) were top-notch. I can’t tell you how many times I saw spectators moving throughout the course (from one mile to another), all the great signs and cowbells, hell, even people in costume. Any runner who decries that stuff as being distracting is full of it.
By around mile 5, the rain had stopped, and Houston finally became what I wanted it to be: a PR course on a PR weather day. The temps had levelled out around high 40s/low 50s with not very much wind (though we ran into some 10-15mph headwinds periodically), and Ryan Hall apparently knew what he was talking about at 6:55 that morning when he said that it was a great day for a marathon. Of course, though the rain stopped, early on in the race, probably around mile 5, I managed to baptize my feet in an impromptu pond and totally submerged them; I knew it instantly, even before the “squish squish” of my socks reminded me.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve run in wet socks and shoes before, but I didn’t know how well this would fare for the next 21.2 miles at a sub-8 pace.
Well… it didn’t.
Around mile 14 (I think), not long after we had run near the Texas medical district and Rice University, I could begin to feel myself slowing down some; in retrospect, it’s hard to remember if it was bc I wasn’t being as attentive as I should have been to refueling or if it’s bc my feet were beginning to noticeably (perceptibly) blister. As in other marathons, though, I quickly began taking any real food (oranges, bananas) that spectators were offering on the sidelines, in an effort to stay ahead of bonking, and to supplement what I was already ingesting from my gels that I had been taking about every 4-5 miles and Gatorade shortly thereafter. Because I was pretty sure Gatorade had killed my stomach just the day before, I was very leery about taking any of it during the race, though I know I needed to.
Dan and I trekked along, doing our own thing, since we had decided early on to leave the pace group, and at the halfway mark, we were a good 40 seconds ahead of pace and on track for a 3:28ish (I think). The miles had been clicking by, and especially once the weather cleared, physiologically, I felt like I was on a long, comfortable, training run. I was beginning to convince myself, though, that regardless of what was going on in my shoes, I’d be able to keep up this pace and hit that coveted 3:30.
Miles later, around mile 19 or 20, Dan and I split–early on, we had had that conversation of “if you’re ready to push and I’m not, just go”–though he was in my sight for a long time. Around the time we had split, my feet had really begun to bother me; I could feel (and visualize) the bottoms of my feet getting more and more raw, and I was beginning to count down to the moment I’d be able to throw off my shoes and put on flip-flops (which is usually one of the first things I do post-race, anyway). My pace in these miles had slowed to my slowest of the entire race, 8s and change (up to an 8:37, if memory serves), but I knew that I was still on track for something very close to a 3:30… until the pace group caught up to me around mile 21. The leader, too, was in my sight for a very long time, so I knew that I wasn’t too far gone.
The mental digging, where I began talking to myself and doing all the visualizing and positive self-talk and mantras, all the stuff that I read to hype myself up and prepare for a marathon, really kicked in around this time. My feet were hurting like fuck, but I still wasn’t feeling like I was about to bonk (in no small part due to the parade of fruit I seemed to be finding on the race route from the awesome spectators. I considered not taking anything, since the whole country is raging with the flu, but I thought I’d take my chances and deal with it later if I got sick from dirty runners’ hands touching all the fruit).
More overpasses and underpasses later, and after what I thought was the last hill (or last significant one) of the course around mile 23, and a spectator said it was all downhill from here–music to my ears (and my feet) at that point. Jason, another guy whom Dan and I had picked up late in the race, and I were leapfrogging each other by now, and for a few paces, we were striding in near silence, totally focused on the task at hand.
Mile 23.5 found we marathoners running parallel to the halfers (who were 10.5 in), and I suddenly found myself stupidly and “deeply” contemplative here about the nature of running and how egalitarian this sport can be. I get like this during marathons. My internal monologue oscillated between “wow, I’m about to finish a marathon in the time that these people only did a half” (at the risk of sounding like an ass, I think a half is a respectable distance… just remember where I am here!), to “well, even if they’re slower, that’s great they’re doing this for themselves and their health,” to “more people should run,” to some internal diatribe about the state of most Americans’ health.
Always a nerd… even when fueled by endocannibinoids and probably some oxygen deprivation.
As these finals miles wore on, with the little rollers that we had there that felt like mountains (just as elsewhere throughout the course), I took advantage of every downhill I got to pick up some momentum just to hold my pace. Though the 3:30 group was no longer in sight, I knew I was just behind them, provided my mental math wasn’t too terrible. Jason was no longer with me–somewhere behind–and I figured I’d be just a couple minutes behind Dan, too, assuming he finished as strong as he looked when we split.
By this point, I’m confident my running form had gone to hell because I kept thinking about my damn feet and how tired I was… but mostly how much my feet hurt. I knew, provided I didn’t suddenly keel or walk, that I was going to be very close to a 3:30, even with these slower miles. Magically, somehow (and this is somewhat comical), I think the fatigue (or something) hit me because with about 1.5 miles left, my head suddenly felt heavy as hell–like I had to run with my head slightly back to relieve some of the weight–so my internal monologue that had once focused on topics a bit more universal–ya know, about Americans’ sedentary lifestyles–became fixated on “god, my head is heavy… it must be my hair… I need to donate my hair now… I can’t keep it this long if it’s goin to make me slower…” (yup, it made a lot of sense at the time, promise :D)
When I wasn’t thinking about the weight of my hair, I kept envisioning my flip-flops and how wonderful it’d be to get out of wet shoes and socks, and I desperately wanted to hold my A. Houston was my second marathon since having her but the first one where she was actually with me, so I was really looking forward to being with her again as soon as possible. I didn’t see my family at miles 12 or 22, where they were planning to be, but I chalked it up to the difficulties of coordinating four adults and three children’s schedules.
Imagine my surprise–and utter elation–then, when as I’m rounding mile 26 and change, just about 100 paces from turning left for the finish line, I see my sister, C, A, and my nephews on my right hand side. I waved and Cheshire cat-grinned at them before making a left and looking at my watch, realizing I’d miss 3:30, but not by much–3:31 and some change–but seeing my family (#1) and when I did (#2)–knowing that they’d see me finish and see that I was on PR pace–couldn’t have made me happier.
Dan rocked his race and finished just a couple minutes ahead of me (a great performance from him) and was waiting for me at the finish line area. He told me he actually cried for much of the final miles of the race because he realized he was going to get the time he wanted. 🙂 We caught up with each other, even got some pictures together, and headed into the post-race festivities area where we got our Under Armour finisher’s shirts, Houston Marathon beer mug, medal, gear check stuff, and food. We looked at my feet–which were about as bad as I imagined them to be–exchanged contact info and parted ways, as I went to meet up with my family elsewhere in the convention center. True to Erin form, after any marathon, I cried… though this time, I held it together until I saw my family, and then I promptly burst into tears, repeatedly, which made A a little concerned and my sister equally as emotional as me 🙂
Though I didn’t hit my 3:30 goal, I was floored to shave 2.5 minutes off my marathon PR that I had set the previous April, and Houston was a solid confidence-booster that showed me that contrary to what I may think, I’m capable of and trained to go sub-3:30. I have the absolute privilege to glean a lot of running wisdom from my awesome training partners, my online running community on Twitter, RYBQ, and dailymile, and I think I’m slowly finding out what works best for me–in terms of my training, nutrition, racing, fuelling, everything. I definitely made some mistakes in Houston–I shouldn’t have been as aggressive in the first half–but I think this experience is making me well-prepared to go after a 3:30 in Eugene in late April. In the interim, I’ve got a 10k in a couple weeks (which I signed-up for to reset my 10k PR) and an 8k, and a nice Chicago winter’s worth of training 🙂
And my feet? They’re on the mend. My nurse brother did some at-home “surgery” on them, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that I’ve got a couple new epidermises on my body now, thanks to some Dermabond. 🙂
Though the Texans lost their playoff chances, the rest of marathon Sunday was fabulous, with all my family under one roof for the first time in a long time. My family there and my runner friends elsewhere were all super supportive and congratulatory, which made me feel like a rockstar (thanks, guys!!!).
I’d recommend Houston. It’s well-organized, the fan support is great, the amenities are just right, and though I’d classify it as having some rollers and not being pancake flat–hello, I live in Chicago, everything else by comparison is hilly–it’s still a fast course. Having my family here to celebrate and go through the motions with me just made it that much more special, regardless if I performed how I wanted to.
Marathon #18… PR… BQ #6… check and check and check. Can’t do this stuff without you guys. All my love –eamg 🙂